Golden State Urbanity: 28 History Books That Get At The Heart of Metropolitan California

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For many Americans, the phrase “California history” sounds like an oxymoron. Born out of a Gold Rush and two World Wars, the Golden State, to easterners, has always seemed like the new kid on the block. Californians might have aided in such perceptions, notes the 1970s dean of West Coast literature, Joan Didion. “You might protest that no family has been in Sacramento Valley for anything approaching ‘always,’” she wrote, “But it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it has simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west.” For Didion, such depictions of the past cast melancholy over “those who participate in it,” … [Read more...]

White Racial Innocence Goes to War: Forrest Gump at 20

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1994—it wasn’t that long ago.  Or was it?  It was a time before iPhones, YouTube, Monica Lewinsky, WMDs, and Honey Boo-Boo.  The tech bubble was still a glimmer in Alan Greenspan’s eye.  It was in the Spring of that year that I remember seeing a trailer for a forthcoming Tom Hanks film with the unlikely title Forrest Gump.  I figured it was some weirdo prestige project that a big-name actor was doing for some indie cred, and would never, ever be a commercial success.  But a few months later, I witnessed a crowd of teary-eyed viewers streaming out of a screening of Forrest Gump, clutching Kleenexes.  Something was clearly going on. As it turns out, Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a Candidean … [Read more...]

Seventy Years Later: The Zoot Suit Riots and the Complexity of Youth Culture

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[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures, May 30, 2013.] In the film "American Me," Pedro Santana, fresh from having his devotion to wife Esperanza tattooed on his arm, prepares for a night on the town. His wife, accompanied by another couple, wades through Los Angeles streets on their way to meet Pedro, as a soundtrack of sensationalized news reports of zoot-suited thugs, dangerous riots, and retributions delivered by U.S. servicemen blare in the background. His friends exhibit a clear wariness regarding the evening's disruptive personality, but Pedro appears unconcerned, more focused on "walking the boulevard with his woman." … [Read more...]

Noiring L.A.: The Crimson Kimono and Asian American Sexuality in the Age of the Cold War

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"Crimson Kimono is really just a reversal of the old GI concept: 'Let's change our luck,'" Director Sam Fuller told interviewers. "That means let's go out and get some local talent, someone of a race or creed other than our own. The Japanese cop in Crimson Kimono is in a reverse position. He is involved with a white girl and wondering to himself, 'Does she want me for me or has she been dumped by some white guy and is trying to change her luck?'" 1 Certainly, in this way and in several others, Fuller's 1959 film took a very different approach from other film noir of the 1950s, and serves as useful text from which to consider changes to the genre and Southern California's racial … [Read more...]

Does Rape Have a Color? Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and the Racial Politics of Sexual Abuse

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Like so many over the past weeks, I have been following the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen conflagration that re-exploded in the media on February 1 with Ms. Farrow’s open letter to the New York Times. In the letter, Farrow accuses Allen in graphic and heart-wrenching detail of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old. This information wasn’t new since Maureen Orth at Vanity Fair had covered the story extensively when it first broke in 1992, but Farrow’s letter triggered new interest in the case, even beyond that of Orth’s November 2013 follow-up interviews with the entire Farrow clan. Apparently unable to stay silent amidst the firestorm, Allen followed Farrow’s letter one week later … [Read more...]

“Looking” for Identity: Gender, Sexuality, and a Brief History of LGBT America

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When HBO premiered the first episode of its new series Looking in mid-January, the show, as noted by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour “launched a 1,000 think pieces across the internet.” While Looking remains a compelling, if admittedly “low key” viewing experience, noted one critic, the show’s existence points to a more complicated and nuanced reality regarding 21st century gay identity.  How did we get here and how have ideas about homosexuality and identity been formed? The answer, one might argue, hinges on a complex mix of personal and group agency, popular culture and public discourse, and government, local and federal, regulation. As established by Josh Sides in his excellent 2010 work … [Read more...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

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What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy? I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut. As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about … [Read more...]

When the Netflix Bingestrution Model Goes Wrong, or Why did Everyone Stop Talking about Orange is the New Black

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When Orange is the New Black first became available on Netflix, one could almost feel the wave of deserved critical praise that washed over podcasts for months afterward. It was like riding the Tidal Wave roller coaster at Six Flags Great America--exhilarating, breathtaking, and then, over.   Most critics felt obliged, rightly so, to only address the first couple episodes lest they ruin anything for those of us struggling to play catch up. “Orange burns with the kind of laughter that usually only comes after tears; it's audacious, shocking, intimate, and intense,” applauded Grantland’s TV critic Andy Greenwald. Normally a curmudgeon on the topic of the Netflix bingestrution model, … [Read more...]

Living on Noir Borders: Race, Sexuality, and Law Enforcement in Touch of Evil and Crimson Kimono

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“It has been argued that Touch of Evil is not so much the end of film noir as it is the beginning of a new kind of border film,” argued Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo in their 2003 work Noir Anxiety.[1] Indeed, much of the classic noir period, spanning roughly from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to 1958’s Touch of Evil, seemed uncomfortable with borders. Racial, sexual, and moral boundaries all seemed blurred and dangerous.  However, borders change. What once might have been a space seen as problematic or dangerous can, in a short period of time, become normalized. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, gay rights let alone same sex marriage appeared to have been located on the outer limits of … [Read more...]

Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool

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[Editor's Note: Just in time for summer heat waves, this is the first in a series of posts in the upcoming weeks on the swimming pool in American life.  For those interested in cultural history of the backyard pool, check out ToM's RR via @KCETDepartures - "A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California"] “Caddy Day,” read the Bushwood Country Club Swimming Pool sign in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack, “Caddies welcome 1:00 – 1:15.”    In the roughly five minute scene, the Bushwood Country Club grudgingly hosts its lowest rung of employee: the caddies.  As the motley crew of lower middle and working class white kids, the group’s ethnic population … [Read more...]

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